Published: 24th February 2021
Let’s Teach English: How this Chennai initiative is helping underprivileged children speak English better
What began as a pandemic project currently has over 3000 volunteers and 40 organisations enrolled in the Let’s Teach English initiative in different states all over the country
Merlin, a Class 11 student loves to learn new languages and is most excited to try new adventures. However, she was unable to carry on with her regular classes as educational institutions were shut across the country due to the COVID-19 pandemic. It wasn't just Merlin whose academics was hampered — just like her numerous other kids were stuck at home during the lockdown. To solve this issue and help children carry on with their English language learning, Aarti Madhusudan founded the Let's Teach English initiative. Started in June 2020 in Chennai, the initiative has already onboarded more than 3000 volunteers to teach English for an hour, once a week to underprivileged students in government schools all over the country. The deal is simple — volunteers must speak in English to their assigned student, for one hour, once a week for a span of 15 weeks on the phone.
What began as a pandemic project currently has over 3000 volunteers and 40 organisations enrolled in different states including Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra. Apart from students, teachers aged 18 to 60 years, retired personnel and career professionals in the US, Singapore and Dubai are eager volunteers of the programme. “They wanted to help the less fortunate and we identified this need,” said Preetha P Ramakrishnan, Organisation Coordinator for Let’s Teach English in CSI Monahan School, Chennai and Siddhu School, Madurai.
Initially, the programme was conceived as a one-time project but we saw the huge need for learning English in Chennai, where it was introduced first. It has now turned into a programme that we’ve introduced nationwide
Preetha P Ramakrishnan, Organisation Coordinator for Let’s Teach English
The schools that are enrolled in the programme are chosen based on the organisation’s criteria of low income and/or first-generation students. Often as young as 6-10 years old, the students get attached to the volunteers and eagerly look forward to receiving calls every week. “We seek to primarily improve conversation skills in students," says Preetha. The most important area of focus for volunteers is to help their students build confidence while speaking in English, especially for first-generation learners.
When asked how they keep track of students’ progress, Preetha confidently replies, “We do not measure English proficiency with tests or questionnaires as we are not a tuition centre, nor are we preparing them for exams. Rather, we are preparing them to engage in conversation in English with confidence in society at large - in schools, colleges, interviews or at work." The reason for the widespread impact of the programme she believes is the storytelling and conversational model of the spoken English classes. The conversational model helps break down the inhibitions in students by getting them to speak in English as much as possible.
Swarnaa, a student of Women’s Christian College in Chennai, who is a volunteer of the programme shares her experience with Merlin, "She was initially shy but it was easy to connect with her as she was only a year younger to me. Merlin likes to play sports, hates maths, is interested in singing, not an extrovert but always excited to try new things and loves learning languages. She told me she was trying to pick up Malayalam from movies, I told her to do the same with English."
The success story, though, does not come without its own sub-plot of challenges and innovation. Since the initiative was started during the lockdown, many children did not possess smartphones and hence, it was difficult to organise the classes. “We began a drive to donate used phones to students and enable them to attend virtual classrooms and receive the calls,” revealed Preetha. There were also cases where some volunteers were not able to complete the 15 weeks. In the case of a volunteer dropout, the student is assigned to a different volunteer who is already handling a student and is happy to teach one more child.
Currently, individual organisations such as the Rotary Club of Madras Industrial City, members from all the sponsored clubs of Rotary Club of Madras, Rotaract Club of Women’s Christian College, Chennai have volunteers assigned to the schools who are enrolled in the programme. The best, though, is yet to come for Let’s Teach English as the initiative plans to extend their services all over India in 2021. They wish to make a difference in the lives of children from low-income families. With their sights set on a nationwide expansion, Let’s Teach English is all set to change the world, one student and one teacher at a time.